Wednesday, May 18, 2011

John Thorm's Baseball in the Garden of Eden

The purported aim of John Thorn's Baseball in the Garden of Eden: The Secret History of the Early Game is to settle the question of where baseball originated.  Was it purely American (and therefore virtuous according to its advocates 100 years ago) or did it derive from English rounders (and therefore unoriginal)?  The depth of research is truly impressive, as he digs all the way from archives into classified ads in obscure northeastern newspapers.  But he solves the question about one-third through the book--clearly it evolved from rounders, and the Manhattan variation of Base Ball managed to dominate (because, as Thorn points out, that version was claimed as "manly" while also "easier for unathletic clerks to play" (p. 48).  Over time, "soaking" (hitting someone to make an out) was phased out, and the pitcher had to stand further back.

I actually found other elements of the book more interesting, and even provocative.  Thorn argues that, despite all the nostalgia, baseball succeeded largely because of gambling.  Without the wagering, the crowds would not have come, the money would not have flowed, and the game would have foundered.  Gambling, of course, became a scourge, but he argues it created baseball in the first place.

Indeed, if anything his overall argument is that our national pastime is based on baseness, and very successfully so.  He doesn't raise the issue of Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire, or any other modern player in that regard, but in painstaking (and in often "I need to skim this paragraph" detail) he discusses the plotting going on in the background.  That could be economic, political, or even religious.  Did you know how central Theosophists were in baseball's origins?  Me neither.  It does not really matter much, but peels back some layers of historical impurity we like to pretend don't exist when we look at current players.

More from "the more things change, the more they stay the same" category:

--tinkering with the pitching area or balls to encourage hitting goes well back into the nineteenth century

--serious labor fights, with holdouts, etc. have always been central in baseball

--for over 100 years, people have said baseball was better in the old days.  A comment from the 1870s noted the game "not being as lively as it was ten years ago" (p. 153).

--the debate over whether to wear your socks high or low was also a big deal in 1867 (p. 138).


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